By Lona Manning
A group of young people, passing the rainy weeks of autumn together in “a dull country house,” decide to entertain themselves by staging a play. So what’s so wrong about that, as the critic Lionel Trilling asks rhetorically in his 1954 essay?
The characters in Jane Austen’s great novel, Mansfield Park, devote a great deal of time to debating the question. The play chosen, Lovers’ Vows, is a real play, and Austen could have relied on the fact that her contemporary readers would be familiar with this play. A greater understanding of the play, and of the social milieu of Mansfield Park, will help modern readers understand why the novel’s hero and heroine — Edmund Bertram and his meek cousin Fanny Price — thought that yes, there was plenty wrong about that.
Lovers’ Vows has two storylines – one melodramatic and one comic. Frederick, a young soldier returning home, encounters his mother starving by the roadside. He also learns to his horror that he is illegitimate, and his father is the long-absent Baron Wildenhaim. A kindly local peasant, or Cottager, and his wife take his mother under their roof. Frederick accosts his father and is thrown in prison but matters are eventually sorted out and the remorseful Baron marries Agatha. Meanwhile, the Baron’s legitimate daughter, Amelia, is the lead in the comic storyline. She flirtatiously woos her tutor, the preacher Anhalt, while fending off a marriage proposal from Count Cassel. The entire action is commented on, in rhyming verse, by the Butler, another comic character.
In other words, the themes of Lovers’ Vows (in the original German, the play was called The Love Child) are extra-marital sex and seduction, albeit where sinners repent and Virtue triumphs in the end. Fanny thinks the two female leads, Agatha and Amelia, are “totally improper for home representation—the situation of one, and the language of the other, [are] unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty.”
Yes, by modern standards the play is, in Kingsley Amis’s words, ‘innocuous rubbish,’ but taking into consideration as well the fact that professional actresses were socially at about the level of courtesans in Regency society, we can begin to appreciate Fanny’s apprehensions on behalf of her cousins.
Edmund feels the same, particularly when their father, Sir Thomas, is in the middle of a hazardous sea voyage, and he also argued that the others shouldn’t be making free with his father’s house by constructing a theatre in his billiard room, or using his private study for a green room. But Edmund’s many objections are brushed aside by his older brother Tom.
The casting of the parts creates a great deal of tension among the young people. Maria and Julia, the Bertram sisters, both want to play the dramatic part of Agatha, but there can only be one; Maria is chosen – she will play scenes with Henry Crawford (who is playing the part of her son, not her lover) and jealous Julia vows she will have nothing to do with the play. Their house guest Mr. Yates will play the Baron. Maria’s fiancé; the plodding Mr. Rushworth, is miscast as Count Cassel, but Mary Crawford is well suited to the part of impudent, girlish Amelia. Tom Bertram will play the rhyming Butler, a part he later decides is unrewarding. Anyone reading through Lovers’ Vows today might well be inclined to agree with him!
The characters and plots in the play often mirror or echo the drama unfolding at Mansfield Park between the Bertrams and the Crawfords. Those “indefatigable rehearsers,” Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford, lose no opportunity to practise their tender reunion scene again and again, which brings them into a “dangerous intimacy.”
When Mary Crawford takes the part of Amelia, it’s clear that she wants Edmund as her Anhalt. He initially refuses out of principle, but his swift capitulation is clear evidence, to a dismayed Fanny, of Mary Crawford’s growing power over him.
Poor Fanny is roped into acting as prompter while the man she loves enacts love scenes with Mary Crawford, and they exchange dialogue like this:
Amelia. I will not marry.
Anhalt. You mean to say, you will not fall in love.
Amelia. Oh no! [ashamed] I am in love.
Anhalt. Are in love! [starting] And with the Count?
Amelia. I wish I was.
Anhalt. Why so?
Amelia. Because he would, perhaps, love me again.
Anhalt. [warmly]. Who is there that would not?
Amelia. Would you?
Anhalt. I—I—me—I—I am out of the question.
Amelia. No; you are the very person to whom I have put the question.
Anhalt. What do you mean?
Amelia. I am glad you don’t understand me. I was afraid I had spoken too plain. [in confusion].
To twist the knife even further for Fanny, Amelia loves Anhalt in large part because he was her tutor; he formed her and shaped her mind, just as Edmund has done with Fanny. In the play, Anhalt feels himself to be of too low a rank to dare confess his love; while Fanny feels herself to be so far below Edmund that to even think of him romantically is a “presumption for which she had not words strong enough to satisfy her own humility.” Alas, poor Fanny – as Amelia could tell her, love comes just as it pleases, without being asked.
Meanwhile the hapless Mr. Rushworth is playing the Count, a heartless seducer of women: (in a gay, lively, inconsiderate, flimsy, frivolous coxcomb, such as myself…….to keep my word to a woman, would be deceit: ’tis not expected of me. It is in my character to break oaths in love) while his own betrothed is being seduced under his nose by Henry Crawford. A contemporary audience would have understood the irony of this juxtaposition and if they knew the play well, would also have picked up on the fact that when Mrs. Norris rebukes Fanny for refusing to take the minor role of Cottager’s Wife, she quotes that character’s opening line. Cottager’s Wife comes to the aid of Agatha at the end of Act I, and brushes off her son Frederick’s thanks with: Thanks and blessings! here’s a piece of work indeed about nothing! Good sick lady, lean on my shoulder.
Aunt Norris scolds Fanny with “What a piece of work here is about nothing,” clearly a reference to this opening line, for her unwillingness to join in the play-acting.
Or perhaps Aunt Norris, by quoting the play, is hinting that she would make a good Cottager’s wife, since, after all, she thinks of herself as being as benevolent as that character?
Fanny protests, “I could not act anything if you were to give me the world,” and the fact is that Cottager’s Wife has some pretty droll lines, which one simply can’t imagine Fanny being able to deliver: If you find friends and get health, we won’t trouble you to call on us again: but if you should fall sick or be in poverty, we shall take it very unkind if we don’t see you. No wonder Mrs. Grant, who steps into the role, “spoiled everything by laughing.”
But unfortunately for the Mansfield Park Players, their rehearsals end dramatically one afternoon with the unexpected return of Sir Thomas, followed by a scene that leaps off the page – Sir Thomas goes to look into his beloved private study, and discovers that it is all disarranged:
The removal of the bookcase from before the billiard-room door struck him especially…He stepped to the door, and, opening it, found himself on the stage of a theatre, and opposed to a ranting young man …. At the very moment of Yates perceiving Sir Thomas, and giving perhaps the very best start [that is, a startled reaction] he had ever given in the whole course of his rehearsals, Tom Bertram entered at the other end of the room; and never had he found greater difficulty in keeping his countenance. His father’s looks of solemnity and amazement on this his first appearance on any stage, and the gradual metamorphosis of the impassioned Baron Wildenheim into the well-bred and easy Mr. Yates, making his bow and apology to Sir Thomas Bertram, was such an exhibition, such a piece of true acting, as he would not have lost upon any account.”
The phrase “this his first appearance on any stage” seems taken directly from the old-time language of carnival barkers – direct from performing before the crowned heads of Europe! We can imagine Austen’s mischievous pleasure in conceiving and writing this scene.
The return of the pater familia wrenches everyone back to reality – Henry later describes the “acting week” as a “pleasant dream,” and recalling her rehearsal with Edmund puts Mary “into a reverie of sweet remembrance.” But the mischief has been done — Maria has been seduced, in spirit if not in fact, by Henry Crawford, and Edmund is equally under Mary Crawford’s spell. Both Edmund and Maria face disillusionment, and she faces ruin, by the end of the novel.
In the words of the Rhyming Butler:
Then you, who now lead single lives,
From this sad tale beware;
And do not act as you were wives,
Before you really are.